Deadeye dick, p.12
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       Deadeye Dick, p.12

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  A lot of them were Japanese. My father played host to the first Italians to settle in Midland City. Mr. Barry brought in the first Japanese.

  I'll never forget the first Japanese to come into Schramm's Drugstore when I was on all-night duty there. I have mentioned that the store was a lighthouse for lunatics--and that Japanese was a lunatic of a sort, almost literally a lunatic, since the word "lunatic" has to do with craziness and the moon. This Japanese didn't want to buy anything. He wanted me to come outside and see something wonderful in the moonlight.

  Guess what it was. It was the conical slate roof of my childhood home, only a few blocks away. The peak of the cone, where the cupola used to be, was capped with very light gray tar roofing, with bits of sand stuck to it. In the light of a full moon, it was glittering white--like snow.

  The Japanese smiled and pointed up at the roof. He had no idea that the building meant anything to me. Here was the thought he wanted to share with me, the only other person awake at the time: "Fujiyama," he said, "--the sacred volcano of Japan."

  *

  Mr. Barry, like a lot of self-educated people, was full of obscure facts which he had found for himself, and which nobody else seemed to know. He asked me, for instance, if I knew Sir Galahad had been a Jew.

  I said politely that I hadn't. It was his airplane. I expected to be annoyed by an anti-Semitic joke of some kind. I was mistaken.

  "Not even the Jews know Sir Galahad was a Jew," he went on. "Jesus, yes--Galahad no. Every Jew I meet, I ask him, 'How come you people don't boast more about Sir Galahad?' And I even tell them where they can check it out, if they want to. 'Start with the Holy Grail,' I say."

  According to Fred T. Barry, a Jew named Joseph of Arimathea took Christ's goblet when the Last Supper was over. He believed Christ to be divine.

  Joseph brought the goblet to the Crucifixion, and some of Christ's blood fell into it. Joseph was arrested for his Christian sympathies. He was thrown into prison without food or water, but he survived for several years. He had the goblet with him, and every day it filled up with food and drink.

  So the Romans let him go. They couldn't have known about the goblet, or they surely would have taken it from him. And Joseph went to England to spread the word about Christ. The goblet fed him on the way. And this wandering Jew founded the first Christian church in England--at Glastonbury. He stuck his staff into the ground there, and it became a tree which bloomed every Christmas Eve.

  Imagine that.

  Joseph had children, who inherited the goblet, which came to be known as the "Holy Grail,"

  But sometime during the next five hundred years, the Holy Grail was lost. King Arthur and his knights would become obsessed with finding it again--the most sacred relic in England. Knight after knight failed. Supernatural messages indicated that their hearts weren't pure enough for them to find the Grail.

  But then Sir Galahad presented himself at Camelot, and it was evident to everyone that his heart was perfectly pure. And he did find the Grail. He was not only spiritually entitled to it. He was legally entitled to it as well, since he was the last living descendant of that wandering Jew, Joseph of Arimathea.

  *

  Mr. Barry told me what the "stock" part of a "laughingstock" was. It was a tree stump used as a target by archers. I had told him that I guessed I was the laughingstock of New York.

  Fred's mother said to me, speaking of herself, "Shake hands with the laughingstock of Midland City, and the laughingstock of Venice, Italy, and the laughingstock of Madrid, Spain, and the laughingstock of Vancouver, British Columbia, and the laughingstock of Cairo, Egypt, and of just about every important city you can name."

  *

  Felix got to talking to the pilot, Tiger Adams, about Celia Hildreth, who had become Celia Hoover. Tiger, who had been a year ahead of Felix in high school, had taken her out once, which was par for the course. He guessed that she was lucky to have married an automobile dealer who didn't care what was under her hood.

  "A cream puff," he said. At that time, this was a common description for an automobile which was flashy and loaded with accessories--and never mind whether it ran or not.

  He had one interesting piece of information, which I had also heard: that the place to see Celia was at the YMCA at night, where she was enrolled in several self-improvement programs--calligraphy and modern dance and business law, and things like that. This had been going on for a couple of years or more.

  Felix, hunching forward, asked Adams how Dwayne Hoover took it, having his wife go off night after night. And Adams replied that Dwayne had probably given up interesting her in sex. It was a futile undertaking. Dwayne was consoling himself, no doubt, in somebody else's arms.

  "And that's probably a chore for him," Adams went on, "like having his teeth cleaned." He laughed. "It's something everybody should do at least twice a year," he said.

  "Some sexy town," said Felix.

  "Some towns had better pay attention to business," said Adams. "It would be a terrible thing for the country if they were all like Hollywood and New York."

  *

  And after we set down on the one runway that was open at Cincinnati, it was evident to me that the runway had been cleared at great expense and just for us. That was how important Fred T. Barry was. It turned out that he was on an emergency mission, although he and his mother had said nothing about that to us. The Air Force was deeply concerned about sensitive work that Barrytron was doing for them. They had a helicopter waiting to take him straight to Midland City, so that he could evaluate and remedy any damage the blizzard might have done to the plant.

  In order that we might come along with him, Mr. Barry said that Felix and I were two of his top executives. So up we went again, this time in a clattering contraption invented by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo had obviously modeled it on some mythological creature--half eagle, half cow.

  That was Fred T. Barry's image: "Half eagle, half cow."

  He made me a present of another image, too, as the shadow of our heavier-than-air machine skittered over the unbroken snowfield where Route 53, the highway from Cincinnati to Midland City, used to be.

  I was in a permanent cringe in my seat, going over in my mind all the terrible things about the blizzard which I had heard and read in New York. Thousands were obviously dying or dead below us. It would take a long time to find all the bodies, and there would be so much rebuilding to do. Midland City and Shepherdstown, when the snow melted, would look like French towns on the front in the First World War.

  But Fred T. Barry, as cheerful as ever, said to me, "It's nothing but a big pillow fight."

  "Sir--?" I said.

  "Human beings always treat blizzards as though they were the end of the world," he said. "They're like birds when the sun goes down. Birds think the sun is never going to come up again. Sometime, just listen to the birds when the sun goes down."

  "Sir--?" I said.

  "This will all melt in a few days or a few weeks," he said, "and it will turn out that everybody is all right, and nothing much got hurt. You'll hear on the news that so-and-so many people were killed by the blizzard, but they would have died anyway. Somebody dies of cancer he's had for eleven years, and the radio says the blizzard got him."

  So I relaxed some. I sat up straighter.

  "Blizzard is nothing but a great big pillow fight," he said.

  His mother laughed. Mother and son were so unvain and unafraid. They had such nice times.

  *

  But Fred T. Barry must have been temporarily regretful that he'd said that--when we got a good look from the air at the carriage house. We had circled over the city, so we approached the conical roof from the north. Wind had piled snow halfway up the big north window. The drift hid the back door, the kitchen door, entirely. Seeing it from a distance, I imagined that the drift would actually make the place cozier, would shield it from the wind.

  But we were horrified when we saw the south side. The great doors, which had last been thrown open for
Celia Hildreth in 1943, were agape again. The back door had blown open, we would find out later, and the gale it admitted had flung open the great doors from the inside. The enormous open doorway appeared to have tried to vomit the snow which had piled up inside. How deep was the snow inside? Six feet or more.

  21

  FRED T. BARRY and his mother were left off by the helicopter on a rooftop at Barrytron. Mr. Barry maintained the hoax that Felix and I were his employees, and he instructed the pilot sternly that he was to take us wherever we wanted to go, and to stand by until we were through with him. We had all been such great pals, and gone through so much together, and the mood was that we should really see a lot more of each other, and that most people in Midland City weren't as amusing and worldly as we were, and so on.

  But I would not see or hear from Mr. Barry for ten more years, and I would never lay eyes on his mother again. Out of sight, out of mind. That's how it was with the Barrys.

  So Felix and I used that Air Force helicopter like a taxicab. We went back to the carriage house. There were no footprints there. We had jackets and hats and gloves, but no boots. We were wearing ordinary street shoes, and these filled with snow as we wallowed and tumbled and writhed our way inside. Maybe Mother and Father were under all that snow. If so, they were dead.

  We got to the staircase, whose bottom half was buried. Knowing our parents, we supposed that they had gone to bed when the blizzard hit. They wouldn't have got out of bed, we surmised, even after all hell cut loose downstairs. So Felix and I entered their bedroom. The bed was empty. Not only that, but it was stripped of its blankets and sheets. So, maybe Mother and Father had wrapped themselves in bedding, and gone downstairs after all.

  I went up one more flight to what used to be the gun room, while Felix checked the other rooms on the loft.

  We were expecting to find bodies as hard and stiff as andirons. It was so cold inside. These words popped into my head: "Dead storage."

  I heard Felix call from the balcony: "Anybody home?" And then, as I came down from the gun room, he looked up at me, and he said, haggardly, "Nice to be home again."

  *

  We found Mother and Father at the County Hospital. Father was dying of double pneumonia, coupled with kidney failure. Mother had frostbitten fingers and feet. Father was very sick before the blizzard ever hit, and had been about to go to the hospital anyway.

  Before the streets became completely impassable, Mother had walked out into the storm in a bathrobe and bedroom slippers and a nightgown, with the Hungarian Life Guard tunic over her shoulders and the sable busby on her head. She was out there long enough to suffer frostbite, but she managed to flag down a snowplow. And the snowplow took her and Father, all bundled up in bedclothes, to the hospital, which had its own diesel-powered electric plant.

  When Felix and I came into the lobby of the hospital, not knowing if our parents were there or not, we were appalled by the mess. Hundreds of healthy people had sought shelter there, although nobody was supposed to go there unless seriously ill. The sanitary facilities were swamped, and the refugees had begun to infest the entire hospital, in search of food and water and places to lie down.

  These were my people. They had become pioneers again. They were starting a new settlement.

  They were ten deep at the information counter, which Felix and I were trying to approach, too. You would have thought it was a bar on the Klondike. So I told Felix that I would keep trying to get up to the counter, while he went looking for familiar faces which might have news of our parents.

  I had a feeling, while I inched forward in the crowd, that invisible insects were buzzing around my head. The hospital lobby was surely hot and humid enough for real insects, but the ones that nagged and niggled around me were a condition of my spirit. There had been no such swarms in New York City, but here they were again in my own hometown. They were little bits of information I had about this person or that person, or which this or that person had about me.

  I was a Midland City celebrity, of course, so every so often I heard or thought I heard these words: "Deadeye Dick."

  I gave no sign that I heard them. What would have been the point of my looking this or that person in the eye, accusing him or her of having called me "Deadeye Dick"? I deserved the name.

  When I got to within a rank of the information counter, I learned that the other people were there principally to gain some measure of respect. No truly urgent questions were being put to the three frazzled women behind the counter.

  Typical questions:

  "What's the latest news, miss?"

  "If we want blankets, where do we go?"

  "Do you know that they're out of toilet paper in the ladies' room?"

  "How sick do you have to be to get a room?"

  "Could I have some dimes for when the telephones start working again?"

  "Is that clock right?"

  "Can we use just one burner in the kitchen for about fifteen minutes?"

  "Dr. Mitchell is my doctor. I'm not sick, but would you please tell him I'm here anyway?"

  "Is there a list of everybody who's here? Do you want my name?"

  "Is there some office where they'll cash a personal check for me?"

  "Can I help some way?"

  "My mother's got this pain in her left leg that won't go away. What should I do?"

  "What is the Power and Light Company doing?"

  "Should I tell somebody that I've got a legful of shrapnel from the First World War?"

  I came to admire the three women behind the counter. They were patient and polite, for the most part. One of them blew up ever so briefly at the man with the legful of shrapnel. Her initial reply had somehow left him unsatisfied, and he told her that she had no business in the medical profession, if she wouldn't listen to what people were trying to tell her about themselves. I had a vague idea who he was, and I had my doubts about his ever having been in any war. I was pretty sure he was one of the Gatch brothers, who used to work for the Maritimo Brothers Construction Company, until they were caught stealing tools and building materials.

  If he was who I was pretty sure he was, he had a daughter who was two years ahead of me in school, Mary or Martha or Marie, maybe, who was a shoplifter. She was always trying to turn people into friends by making them presents of things she stole.

  And the woman behind the counter told him bitterly that she was just an ordinary housewife, who had volunteered to help at the hospital, and that she hadn't been to sleep for twenty-four hours. It was late afternoon by then.

  I realized that I knew who she was, too--not approximately, but exactly. Twenty-four hours of sleeplessness had made her, in my eyes, anyway, an idealized representative of compassionate, long-suffering women of all ages everywhere. She denied that she was a nurse, but she was a nurse anyway, without vanity or guile.

  I have a tendency, anyway, to swoon secretly in the presence of nurturing women, since my own mother was such a cold and aggressively helpless old bat.

  Who was this profoundly beautiful and unselfish woman behind the counter? What a surprise! This was Celia Hoover, nee Hildreth, the wife of the Pontiac dealer--once believed to be the dumbest girl in high school. I wanted Felix to get a look at her, but I could not spot him anywhere. The last time he had seen her, she had been cutting through a vacant lot in the nighttime, way back in 1943.

  *

  She was a robot in back of the counter. Her memory was blasted by weariness. I asked her if Mr. and Mrs. Otto Waltz were in the hospital, and she looked in a card file. She told me mechanically that Otto Waltz was in intensive care, in critical condition, and could not have visitors, and that Emma Wetzel Waltz was not in serious condition, and had been given a bed in a makeshift ward which had been set up in the basement.

  So there was a member of our distinguished family down in a basement again.

  I had never been in the basement of the hospital before. But I had known this much about it even when I was a little boy: That was where they had
the city morgue.

  That had been the first stop for Eloise Metzger, after I shot her between the eyes.

  *

  I found Felix standing in a corner of the lobby, agog at the crowd. He hadn't done anything to try and find Mother and Father. He was useless. "Help me, Rudy," he said, "--I'm seventeen years old again." It was true.

  "Somebody just called me the 'Velvet Fog,' " he marveled. This was the sobriquet of a famous singer of popular music named Mel Torme. Felix had also been nicknamed that in high school.

  "Whoever called me that," he said, "said it sneeringly, as though I should be ashamed of myself. It was a real fat guy, with cold blue eyes. A grown man in a business suit. Nobody's spoken to me like that since the Army took me away from here."

  It was easy for me to guess who he was talking about. It had to be Jerry Mitchell, who had been Felix's worst enemy in high school. "Jerry Mitchell," I said.

  "That was Jerry?" said Felix. "He's so heavy. He's lost so much hair!"

  "Not only that," I said, "but he's a doctor now."

  "I pity his patients," said Felix. "He used to torture cats and dogs, and say he was performing scientific experiments."

  And there was prophecy in that. Dr. Mitchell was building a big practice on the principle that nobody in modern times should ever be the least uncomfortable or dissatisfied, since there were now pills for everything. And he would buy himself a great big house out in Fairchild Heights, right next door to Dwayne and Celia Hoover, and he would encourage Celia and his own wife, and God only knows who all else, to destroy their minds and spirits with amphetamine.

  About that insect swarm around my head, all those bits of information I had on this person and that one: Dr. Jerome Mitchell was married to the former Barbara Squires, the younger sister of Anthony Squires. Anthony Squires was the policeman who had given me the nickname Deadeye Dick.

 
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